The First Half Awards
A pitcher who got better after Tommy John surgery. A giant. The game’s two best hitters on the disabled list. Who deserves the hardware?
Now that we’ve reached the halfway point of the major league season, It’s time to hand out some first half awards.
Regardless of how you slice the dice, this is a four-way contest. In the American League, Kansas City’s Jason Vargas and Boston’s Chris Sale have led the way; in the National League it has been Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw.
Vargas has been quite a pleasant surprise for the Royals this year. Since arriving in the majors twelve years ago, he’s pitched over 1300 innings and posted an acceptable but unspectacular 4.03 ERA with 879 strikeouts and a K/BB ratio of 2.3. Not bad, but not Cy Young stuff. Since his Tommy John surgery to repair a torn UCL in mid-2015, Vargas has been comparatively lights out: 113 IP, 2.22 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and a K/BB ratio of 3.15. But Vargas’ numbers are deceiving: he’s basically throwing more curveballs then ever, but is inducing the same types of hits that he always has. He’s gotten lucky and has benefited from good defense, so his season FIP sits at 3.47. Meh. His xFIP-, according to Fangraphs, is a thoroughly unspectacular 108 (lower is better and 100 is average).
Kershaw is this year’s anti-Vargas. Vargas is trying to convince us that he’s a really good pitcher despite a career that says otherwise, and Kershaw is trying to convince us that he’s not the spectacular pitcher his career thus far suggests that he is. He’s sporting his highest FIP (3.23) since his debut year and is giving up home runs at a clip (1.3 per 9) that more than doubles all years since his rookie year, when he gave up 0.9 per 9 innings. He’s still a great pitcher — indisputably one of the best in baseball — but he’s not the best pitcher right now.
That title belongs to either Sale or Scherzer. Scherzer wins this contest in bWAR (4.3 to 3.9), ERA (1.94 to 2.61), WHIP (0.783 to 0.895), ERA+ (212 to 176), BABIP (.222 to .288), and WPA (3.0 to 2.6). Sale wins on fWAR (5.1 to 4.2), FIP (2.01 to 2.60), K/BB (7.546 to 6.292) and strikeouts (166 to 151). It’s a tossup from this perspective, but I give the edge to Sale, since he plays in the tougher league. It pains me to admit this, since I’m an NL fan through and through.
There are a number of names that pop out at you if you look at season leaders in batting average, OPS, Runs Created, WPA, and WAR. Names like Freddie Freeman, Mike Trout, Buster Posey, Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, Justin Turner, Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Bryce Harper, and Aaron Judge.
Freeman has been out for weeks, so it doesn’t seem fair to give him the nod. The same goes for Trout, although I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the historic nature of his season before he made his first-ever trip to the DL. And each of the other names above are in this conversation for good reason. Posey has a league-leading .339 batting average. Arenado and Blackmon have been destroying opposing pitching in Denver, but after adjusting for the Coors effect I just can’t put them in the same category as someone like Trout or Freeman: Blackmon’s wRC+, which is adjusted for park effects, ranks 77th in the league; Arenado’s is 112, placing him right between the “average” and “above average” tiers. Turner, an early beneficiary of the fly ball revolution, is maintaining a 179 wRC+ to go along with a wOBA of .442, both good for fourth in the majors (and both trailing Freeman, Trout, and Judge). His blistering .382 batting average, if the season ended today, would be the best mark since Tony Gwynn’s 1994 campaign of .394.
Harper’s wRC+ of 160 is third in the league, and he boasts an impressive .355 BABIP — one of only two players to have such a high BABIP while walking at least 15% of the time and striking out less than 20% of the time. The other player to do so is Paul Goldschmidt, who owns a .359 BABIP and sits right behind Harper with a wRC+ of 158. In fact, Goldschmidt and Harper have been almost identical batters this year:
But as good as they’ve been, neither has been Aaron Judge. It’s difficult to overstate just how much taller the rookie stands over everyone who is not on the disabled list right now, both in terms of his stature and his performance. His season BABIP of .418 is better than the career marks of everyone who has ever played major league baseball. He is one of four people with an ISO (OPS minus OBP) above .350, he has the tenth highest batting average, the third-highest wRC+ (behind Trout and Freeman), and the highest fWAR and bWAR. He owns the four fastest exit velocities recorded by statcast this season, peaking at 121.1 mph, the fastest average exit velocity (97 mph), and the longest home run distance (495 ft).
He has power to both corners and straightaway center, and he doesn’t have any obvious vulnerabilities in the strike zone — unless you’re pitching him low and away, if he’s swinging, the odds are against you:
For all these reasons, Aaron Judge is our offensive performer of the first half.
Below is a Fangraphs chart showing all batting rookies with a WAR greater than or equal to 1.0 (Andrew Benintendi just missed the cut).
Judge is the obvious outlier, but I won’t double-dip and hand him this award and the offensive performer award. Cody Bellinger has made headlines this year for his prodigious power, chasing Judge for the MLB lead in home runs. His BABIP of .281 is far lower than Judge’s, and doesn’t even crack the top-30 for rookies this year. He strikes out a lot (as does Judge), but doesn’t walk often (10% of plate appearances). As a result, his ISO of .364 is the highest of any rookie but his OBP is ranked 14th. Good, not great.
Ben Gamel bounced around in the Yankees organization since 2010 before being traded to Seattle after the 2016 season, and it has paid dividends for the Mariners. His BABIP is actually better than Judge’s, and although he walks less than Bellinger or Judge, he also strikes out less. Gamel’s problem is that he doesn’t have any real power (ISO of .135), and 56 of his 77 hits this year have gone for singles.
Austin Barnes has the same problem, but he has better power (.240 ISO) and better plate discipline (BB% of 15.1 and K% of 17.6). His wRC+ and wOBA are both second among rookies, but his 4 home runs in one hundred plate appearances makes for an anemic stat line. Additionally, he’s platooned for most of the year, giving us a small sample size to evalute his talent. Finally, Mitch Haniger, another Mariners offseason acquisition, has done well for himself this year, batting .285 (.370 BABIP), although that is offset by a low ISO (.192) and fairly high K rate (24.9%).
In sum: After Judge, it’s a young group of guys who all have vulnerabilities. But based on the small sample size we have, I think Bellinger has the most upside. He is the fifth-youngest player in the majors this year and has only been in the Dodgers organization since 2013, so we’re likely only seeing the beginning of what he’s capable of achieving. He’ll likely always be a guy who struggles to walk and not strikeout, but he will likely be a batter who the Dodgers can count on for 35–40 home runs per year while maintaining a decent batting average.
It’s been a fun first half.
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